The XX Factor

Is Sexual Harassment Training Hopeless?

“Here, allow me to help you achieve full compliance with our company standards.”


Most sexual harassment training is a waste of time at best and a menace to office culture at worst. That’s not the thesis of a post on a men’s rights blog, but rather the suggestion of several peer-reviewed studies at the center of a recent piece in the Guardian.

The basis of the Guardian piece is a depressing study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2001, which found that men who underwent 30 minutes of sexual harassment programming were less likely than a control group to perceive or report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim. The authors posited that the training might have made the men feel attacked—consciously or not—and that the backlash might have been an “effort at self-preservation.” In other words, trying to get men to recognize the threat that sexual harassment poses to women in the workplace may have raised their hackles so suddenly and immediately that all hope of constructive discourse was lost. “All we really know about sexual harassment training is that it protects employers from liability,” University of California, Berkeley professor Lauren Edelman told the Guardian. “We don’t know whether it protects employees. We don’t know whether it reduces sexual harassment.”

In fact, we know a little more than Edelman is giving us credit for. That argument “misses the nuance,” says George Mason University psychologist Eden King, who studies sexual harassment and diversity training. “What we’re doing isn’t working well, it’s true, but we have found evidence that there are ways to improve the effectiveness of training programs.”

A meta-analysis of 65 studies on diversity and sexual harassment training, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2013, suggests that it is possible to teach people how to identify sexual harassment—and to convey how company policies treat it—without inciting a backlash effect. The authors found trends that seemed to determine a program’s level of effectiveness: Trainings that happened in-person and lasted longer than four hours produced a bigger effect; short and virtual trainings had less of an impact. Trainings that asked participants to interact with each other worked better than straight lectures. Participants learned more from trainings led by their supervisor or an external expert, and less when the leader was a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work—for example, an HR official.

The finding the researchers emphasize most is that trying to impart knowledge and skills—“this is what harassment looks like”; “this is what you can do if you witness harassment”—worked better than trying to change attitudes. Maybe this means that even the most successful training programs are shallow in their reach, but the authors don’t seem to see it that way. “Perhaps diversity training may have stronger effects on attitudes over time as opposed to post-training,” they write. “Moreover, attitude change may be preceded by and influenced by knowledge and/or behavior change. For example, an individual might learn first how to communicate with diverse others (knowledge and/or behavior change), and attitude change might follow.”

Slate’s L.V. Anderson has written about similar research suggesting that confronting sexist and racist attitudes head-on often exacerbates them. “Attempting to change attitudes about diversity by emphasizing the social unacceptability of prejudice actually increases prejudice by triggering “a direct counterresponse (i.e., defiance) to threatened autonomy” (in other words, by triggering people’s inner toddlers),” she writes. That “threat effect” was just as evident in white men who self-identified as liberals. It may feel wrong on principle to tiptoe around egos so fragile that 30 minutes of anti-prejudice boilerplate can send them into self-defensive convulsions. But the most successful programs, as Anderson writes, “engage managers in diversity efforts, so that managers feel like they’re a part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

The same basic logic may be the key to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. King found that training is “enhanced” when people are asked to set personal goals for how they will change their workplaces for the better. (Asking trainees to free-write from the perspective of a stigmatized colleague also seemed effective at generating empathy.) One of the items on the agenda at a recent meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace was “bystander intervention,” an approach that’s also become popular on college campuses dealing with sexual assault. As Bobby Eckstein, a lead trainer and curriculum development specialist in the University of New Hampshire’s pioneering “Bringing in the Bystander” program, has told me: “I always assume that my participants have the potential, that they have the ability to be good—that their hearts are in the right place. By addressing them as potential allies, you’re inviting them to be part of the solution, and that goes a long way in terms of lowering their defenses.”

Both in the workplace and on college campuses, the people who enter sexual assault and harassment training with the most biased attitudes exit having learned the least. Bystander intervention training, then, is pragmatic in its focus on arming the benevolent majority against the malign minority—and, at the same time, palliative in its construction of scenarios that don’t place the trainee in the perpetrator’s shoes.

Of course, to say that sexual harassment training can work is very different from arguing that it usually—or almost ever—does. That 25-minute online survey was probably exactly the time-suck that you thought it was. The perfunctory workshop that seemed to send everyone home in a bad mood may have been even worse. But creating a better sexual culture isn’t a hopeless task, even if on some days it threatens to appear that way.